After a fatal boating accident in 2019, Jonathan Gil was told he wouldn't be able to see the body of his twin brother before he was cremated unless he could identify him by his tattoos. Morticians told him that the body was too waterlogged, and in no condition to be displayed for a wake.
When Gil reached out to Thomas Boyland, the director of Thomas F. Boyland Funeral Home in Queens, New York, it was Boyland who told him about a commercial business that gives family members an alternative way to memorialize deceased relatives: by harvesting tattooed skin from their dead bodies and preserving it forever.
Gil’s brother had several tattoos, and Boyland was able to piece back together two of them and send them to a lab in Ohio. There they would be preserved by Save My Ink Forever, a postmortem tattoo service that turns recovered body ink into fine art collectibles. After the work was done, the funeral director delivered the framed tattoos to Gil and his mother in person.
“Everything kind of came rushing back, but in a weird way it was comforting,” Gil told Motherboard. “In a weird way, we had him back. We had a piece of him back that we remembered of him.”
The proprietary process developed by Save My Ink Forever permanently alters the chemical structure of the skin in a way that preserves ink and prevents skin from decomposing. The company works with private funeral homes in 21 U.S. states and has expanded into Canada and the U.K. To obtain authorization from the family, following next-of-kin direct chain links in accordance with state-specific funeral laws.
“People who want this done, in essence, this is their funeral ceremony,” Kyle Sherwood, the tattoo preservationist and COO of Save My Ink Forever, told Motherboard. “This means more to them than a church service.”
Clients describe the area where the tattoo is located and what it looks like. Then a licensed mortician excises the tissue around the tattoo and sends it to Save My Ink Forever’s Ohio lab, where Sherwood goes to work—a process that takes about three months. Sherwood will touch up and enhance the work, doing his best to return the tattoo to its original state.
Sherwood says it’s stories like Gil’s that make this work meaningful.
“The families’ gratitude when they receive the piece and they’re like ‘Oh my God, you know, I feel like they’re here, I saw that tattoo every single day and now I have a piece of that person with me,’” Sherwood explained. “Look, people take ashes and turn them into diamonds. In the Victorian era, they cut hair and made hair necklaces. This isn’t any different.”
Some legal experts, however, say the practice sits in a particularly murky area of the law.
Funeral law expert Tanya Marsh is the Vice Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Law and author of The Law of Human Remains, the first treatise on the subject in 50-plus years. Based on Marsh’s interpretation of funeral laws, she believes Save My Ink Forever is putting funeral directors in the position to have liability under state and criminal statutes for excising tissue from dead bodies.
“I’m sure it’s very meaningful for people to take advantage of their services and I am in favor of the law being flexible enough for people to take advantage of things like that,” Marsh told Motherboard. “However, I don’t think the law currently is flexible enough to make this a legal practice.”
There are no federal or state laws that expressly permit a funeral director to slice off a piece of a person’s skin and mail it to a company to have it preserved. However, more than half of states have criminal statutes—generally known as “abuse of corpse laws”—with criminal penalties for treating human remains in a way the court considers “disrespectful.”
According to Marsh, the criminal abuse of corpse laws would have to be enforced by a county prosecutor, but a complaint would most likely come from a family member if they were to complain to the state regulatory authority. A private claim for emotional harm caused by mistreatment of human remains could also be brought by family members if they see the tattoo removal as mutilation of human remains, which Marsh points out is available in all 50 states.
The company’s legal counsel, Don Ferfolia, claims that the waiver form families fill out absolves the funeral director and Save My Ink Forever from liability. Ferfolia says there are simply families and funeral directors the company will not work with if they’re operating in a state with “abuse of corpse laws” that could result in criminal charges brought on behalf of funeral directors if something goes awry. The company also stresses the importance of following right-of-kin laws.
“We only work with family members who have the rights of disposition,” Ferfolia told Motherboard. “If there’s a family with rights of disposition that is upset, we will never recover a tattoo for preservation. Let’s say there’s a whole group of children with rights of disposition. If there is one person in that group we would consider equal who is disputing that, we will not recover that tattoo.”
Ferfolia said the company is in compliance with laws and would indemnify a funeral director in their network if the company were to be found liable in a legal situation. Sherwood anticipates that demand for the service he offers will rise as tattoos become more popular. A 2021 Statista survey found that 26 percent of Americans had at least one tattoo. And as the only commercially-operating business of its kind in the world, Save My Ink Forever has control over this niche market.
Sherwood argues that postmortem tattoo preservation is giving tattoo artists’ legacies a second life.
“Some of these artists, they’re modern-day Picassos and Rembrandts that just don’t get the credit they deserve because it’s ink and skin instead of ink and parchment,” said Sherwood. “I worked on a Sailor Jerry piece and when you think about how he shaped the tattoo artist community, I mean that’s kind of an artifact, having that piece. Because we haven’t been able to establish legacies for tattoo artists because up until us, their work died—no pun intended—but died with that person.”
Sherwood is optimistic about a future where art galleries and museums will consider postmortem preservation of tattoos on human skin canvases as historical and cultural artifacts. He points out that pathologist Masaichi Fukushi pioneered the tattoo preservation process in Japan by preserving the tattooed skin of donated bodies and now showcases preserved tattoos at the Medical Pathology Museum at Tokyo University.
Sherwood says he is also collaborating with tattoo artists to mint their work as NFTs.
In the meantime, Sherwood says his company will work with any funeral home with a family interested in Save My Ink Forever’s services. But they still won’t agree to preserve every tattoo for reasons like where the tattoo is located or what they depict.
“We do have standards,” he said. “We run a super tight ship because of the skepticism of some people. We make sure that everything is handled in a dignified manner. We don’t want this to be some side-show freak act. We don’t want to give people more of an excuse to dislike what we’re doing.”